Person of the Week
Oakley Walker: Fostering Pride in Madison
Oakley Walker is one of the organizers of Madison’s annual Pride Festival and hopes the tradition continues to gather strength. (Photo courtesy of Oakley Walker)
Of the many reasons for residents to feel Madison pride, such as the town’s history or its parks and shoreline, another is Oakley Walker. This recent graduate has been an important voice in the town’s LGBTQ+ community and hopes that tradition continues now that they have begun tackling college duties.
This year’s Madison Pride Fest was held in early October and marked an important event for Oakley and for the entire Madison community.
“I was part of the original committee that got it started, and I just obviously fell in love with the idea. I was so excited when someone from our group, it started with the Madison Diversity and Inclusion Committee, as a dream of one of our members, Justin Ziegler. He polled us to ask what we thought and we just loved the idea,” says Oakley, who uses they as their pronoun. “I love to have the youth perspective included. I was one of the youngest members of the committee at that point, so I was like, ‘I would love to be part of this.’”
Oakley says this year’s Pride Fest held special meaning. Initially Oakley wasn’t sure if they were going to be able to attend the event due to strict protocols at the college they attend in Boston.
“My school was very strict on protocols because of COVID, and through the whole organizing, I was never sure if I was going to actually be able to make it in person. We did a lot through Zoom meetings and calls, and I just didn’t know if I could go,” Oakley says. “I’m so glad that I did it, and so glad I got to come home and be there physically for the event. I am so grateful that I am part of this and that I got to take on a bigger role this year, and also that’s it’s only going to keep growing. It made me tear up when I looked out and saw all of the people, and different vendors, and the happiness of everyone walking around.
“This is exactly what I imagined,” Oakley recalls thinking. “It was great to have all of us together. It was really beautiful.”
This year’s fest drew attendees from all over, even from other states, and Oakley says the support that was shown was an incredibly uplifting experience for everyone involved.
“Someone I met there said, ‘I heard about this last minute and I came from Rhode Island.’ I was like, “That’s amazing’—people do recognize that Madison is more than just a beach town,” says Oakley.
“The library before the event had a children’s reading of some LGBTQ+ books and I thought that was so sweet. It brings us all together, it benefits everyone—all the local businesses and vendors. It brings more people into our community and connects us with surrounding towns,” Oakley says. “Personally, for me, I just know that I wish I had something like this when I was younger. For myself, the first drag queen I saw was when I was in high school, and when I looked out into the audience and saw all these younger elementary school kids watching the drag queens [who were part of this year’s Pride Fest entertainment], and just loving it and seeing them all so excited and amazed by the outfits, it made me truly happy to witness that.”
Oakley says that the Madison community and schools have been extremely supportive to students like them, but there is still discrimination and bullying in every town and school, and Oakley says work still needs to be done.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but my particular grade in school was pretty accepting of our community. We had several people come out and so it wasn’t a complete shock to my particular grade,” says Oakley. “I did get some looks when I came out as non-binary, but I was mis-gendered a lot—not with malicious intent most of the time, but I think that the community in Madison cares. There were programs and people who really helped us build confidence.”
Oakley feels fortunate to have support and assistance navigating the stress of high school with the efforts of the Gender and Sexuality Program (GASP) Club at the high school. GASP is a school club run in conjunction with Madison Youth & Family Services.
“GASP really changed my life. They really helped when I saw them go into the principal’s office and talk about events, and inclusion, and diversity week, and bathroom issues,” Oakley says. “When [those members] graduated, I saw that this really needed to continue. I wanted to keep this going.
“To be a part of something that can make that change was incredible,” Oakley continues. “I think that group really taught me how to communicate with people, and have that community, and to make me bolder in my choices. It made me grow. I credit that group and my supervisor from that group Erin Corbett for my strength and initiative. It started there when I was a freshman, when I was not yet out, it was a very important time for me.”
Oakley says being able to foster a safe and tolerant space for youth to discuss and learn about sexuality can prevent future stress and damage. Oak’s response to criticism that sexuality is too adult to be taught in middle schools is that the sooner education starts, the better.
“I would much rather have kids learn in a safe space than finding out about all this from online sources, although online sources can be valuable,” Oakley says. “It may be uncomfortable, but having programs like these in middle school benefits everyone.
Oakley now attends Emerson College in Boston and is studying lighting and design in the theater program.
“Entertainment and live performance is very much a part of my life,” says Oakley.
Oakley says that even members of the LGBTQ+ community can have difficulty using the proper pronouns and labels with which individuals define themselves. Oakley advises people to just be fluid and, if they misidentify someone’s gender or use a label improperly, to just roll with it.
“I can only speak for myself, but I have dedicated myself to educating people. So I am very open,” Oakley says. “One thing that I do see with my other trans friends, and we all agree: If you say the wrong pronoun or misidentify, please don’t overly apologize. It just makes us feel on the spot and draws even more attention to us. We don’t need an explanation. We know people are learning and understand they are trying.
“As a trans person, you know when it’s malicious and when it’s not. So if you use a wrong pronoun or misidentify, just do a quick correction and move on,” Oakley continues. “Normalizing that makes you grow and takes the pressure off of trans people. Don’t hype it up, just correct yourself and keep going. Just talk with people, communicate. Don’t be afraid to ask what someone’s preference is on how they identify or what pronoun they use. Just be willing to be corrected. All growth comes with discomfort. I know I’ve felt that discomfort even in my life, and it’s made me a stronger person.”